John Hewson at the Property Funds Association conference

By Tina Perinotto
19 May 2011 – Former Opposition Leader John Hewson delivered a stinging rebuke to his former colleagues and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott for stalling on climate change and blocking a carbon tax. He also called for steep emissions cuts and a tax on carbon that is “at least $40 a tonne”

Speaking at a conference held by the Property Funds Association, (previously the Australian Direct Property Investment Association), at Canberra’s Hyatt Hotel Dr Hewson said former prime minister Kevin Rudd was right when he said climate change was the “greatest moral challenge of our time.”

“I will state my position: I actually do believe Rudd was right that climate change is the biggest economic political social and moral challenge of this century,” Dr Hewson said.

“And I am absolutely disturbed that so far there is no sense of urgency in the debate in this country about an essential response,” he told the conference delegates on Monday.

In a later interview with The Fifth Estate he said it was also highly concerning that when a $40 a tonne price on carbon was proposed Climate Change Minister Greg Combet immediately promised the price would be less. It should be at least $40 and possibly higher, Dr Hewson said.

Dr Hewson who has spent his time since politics in a string of sustainable policy and business ventures said Australia needed an emissions trading scheme, and an authority along the lines of the Reserve Bank of Australia to auction permits and collect revenue from the sale of permits and allocate it, rather than hand funds to the government.

He also said it needed a technological revolution to seize opportunities and a reality check on the magnitude of impact on some sectors such as steel, which would be much lower than the effect of the high Australian dollar, for instance.

His comments came just ahead of an announcement by the UK government this week to declare it would reduce emissions by 50 per cent by 2025 and by 80 per cent by 2050. See separate story

At the conference Dr Hewson expressed frustration at his former colleagues, and the government alike.

He described Mr Abbott as “one of the most negative people I know” on economic and political issues such as climate change.

“Now there’s the guy who blew the GST, so I can speak with some authority.” Instead of policies, Mr Abbott relied on slogans, said Dr Hewson: “No carbon tax, no boat people.”

Dr Hewson, as a member of the influential National Business Leaders Forum on Sustainable Development which he chaired for six years, said that before the last federal election he proposed a multi party committee to work on setting a carbon price.

“Tony Abbott refused to participate even though his alternative direct action puts an implicit price on carbon” and even though his participation would help decide how “best to put a price on carbon,” Dr Hewson said.

The debate in Australia was facile on all sides, he said. It was incomprehensible why the Prime Minister Julia Gillard had announced there would be a price on carbon without also including details of the price and how it would work.

This had only given a “free kick to Abbott” who would continue to kick the prime minister each time another plank in the policy was announced.
“He’s got a sustained free kick on this government on an issue that is fundamentally important.”

Dr Hewson said there was a case for urgency on climate change.

“In my view this is a very substantial issue because for once in the passage of history most scientists agree.

“And it’s unusual that the scientific community has come together in such a persuasive way to say to the international community, we are at a tipping point.”

Although the order of magnitude and speed could be reasonably debated, he said, the chorus of warnings were that we are very close to the “tipping point.”

“My sense is we are very close to that tipping point.

“In Australia we need to recognise that we need to cut emissions by 40 per cent  by 2020 and by 80 per cent or more by 2050 and that’s something that has to be front end loaded.

“We cant wait to 2040 and say, right let’s do it, because you can’t do it [quickly] – it  takes time. And it involves a substantial restructuring of the whole economy.

“Sure there will be winners and losers and sure the government has a responsibility to push the pain onto the losers  – some of the losers – and facilitate the development of winners.”

Dr Hewson said Australia needed a “technological revolution” and a “whole range of new industries and new jobs.”

He said the public debate was misinformed and misleading on a number of fronts.

“I was staggered that the front page of the papers [this week] were saying this carbon tax will lose 23,000 jobs in range of industries and the energy sector.”

He said that 23,000 jobs was the margin of error made by business economists in forecasting last month’s employment numbers. The economists were “predicting 18,000 up and 49,000 down.”

It was important to keep a sense of the “order of magnitude” of things, he said.

For instance the price of steel was expected to rise by “a few per cent.”

“But look at the impact of the dollar on steel; it’s far more than a few per cent. There’s no orders of magnitude in the debate.”

The Opposition, however, had now decided it needed to move on the issue.

“The Opposition has come to the view, even though they turfed Turnbull out, that “we need a substantial response” and decided on a direct action which would put an “implicit price” on carbon and which consisted of “planting trees and on soil carbon”.

These were important actions, Dr Hewson said, but they needed to be part of much broader policy responses and a market based response to a carbon price.
Australia was on a path to “muddle through” but climate change was too important an issue.

“I don’t’ think you can muddle through.”

He feared the consequences of this action for the future.
It was worrying, he said.

“Looking at the magnitude of these issues; they’re bigger than I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

Dr Hewson told The Fifth Estate after the conference that he had “done a lot” in the past 10-15 years to further sustainability goals and was inspired to become committed to environmental issues in the mid 80s after meeting former US vice president and climate campaigner Al Gore.

He has had direct involvement in ventures such as a waste recycling and methane extraction facility at Eastern Creek in Sydney as well as through the National Business Leaders Forum on Sustainable Development which he chaired for six years and which aims to influence more sustainable outcomes in property. [The group is now chaired by chief executive officer of Lend Lease Asia Rod Leaver and includes on its board Green Building Council of Australia chief executive Romilly Madew.]

The group was responsible for bringing US presidential candidate and late Vice President Al Gore to Australia for his first visit.

“We encouraged him to produce “An Inconvenient Truth,” Dr Hewson said.
He is also busy on other fronts, including launching a book in Canberra this week by Hayden Washington and John Cook, “Climate Change Denial”, which was presented to all parliamentarians. He is also chairperson of the charity KidsXpress for traumatised children and chairman of insurance group GSA.

Dr Hewson said he believed the property industry was aware of the issues of climate change.

“You can see a whole lot of innovation… you see it in the design of buildings and in building materials being used. And you see it in energy efficiency.”

By contrast, other industries lagged.

Dr Hewson told an anecdote of a printing group that he belonged to and which he convinced to undertake a carbon footprint analysis.

“I said to the board let’s look a the carbon footprint. Of course they laughed, but I convinced them to hire a consultant.”

The end result was significant savings in the company’s logistics operations and improvement to the bottom line.

Dr Hewson said the story is typical of many in businesses. It was typical for industries to fight against issues such as sustainability, health and safety and training only to find after they had adopted the relevant measures their businesses improved.

“Look at the behaviour of the corporate sector in the mid 80s. There were a whole lot of issues they were opposed to: it would impact on their bottom line, they could not afford it and they subsequently found they were wrong.

“Workplace safety: the business community didn’t want to contemplate workplace safety – they acted as if they wanted to maim or kill people – and soon they found it was better for their bottom line.
“They didn’t want to train people; they didn’t want better environmental standards. ”

He says that substantial progress has been made in the recent decade or two but in general polluters have escaped paying the true cost of their businesses.

On climate change Dr Hewson said former Prime Minister John Howard was responsible for stalling progress.

“Howard did a lot of damage by saying it would be negative for growth and negative for employment. Obviously there are transition issues. But go out there and do something about it.”

He called for leadership that could withstand the 24 news cycle and the tyranny of focus groups; such a leader would be rewarded by the voters, he said.

A good place to start to turn the tide of influence by the mining sector on policies such as the mining tax, would be the removal of donations to political parties and for election funding to be government funded, he said.

The good news is that he believes that Mr Abbott, if elected, would not revoke a carbon price as he has said, because his promise was likely a pre-election drawcard and because “at some point someone has to do what’s right.”

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